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Walker PercyJanuary 31, 2022
Walker Percy in 1987 (Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: This book review of Paul Horgan’s Approaches to Writing in the Jan. 26, 1974 issue of America was one of many contributions Walker Percy made to America over the years. Though less well-remembered than Percy or his other peers, Horgan was twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He was also awarded the Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame in 1976 and the Campion Award in 1957 by America.

After Walker Percy died in 1990, Horgan eulogized the great novelist and social critic a year later in America; Percy “never failed to catch the salt and pepper—the spice of human character—of the people he set free in his fiction,” Horgan wrote. “His marvelous ear for their speech, his eye for their looks, his mercurial, protean genius for entering into their mindsets, and his overall justice as he surveyed the ethics that they lived by or betrayed—all such elements formed the rich texture of his ultimately noble concept of mankind's possibilities in life—and in literature.”

Walker Percy: "Writing for a living is, for some reason or other, the only occupation to which people still ascribe a species of demonism."

Paul Horgan's book about writing will delight both writers and readers. It will make writers smile, because it tells some peculiar truths about writing which other writers know and many nonwriters may not know and won't easily believe. For example: if a person writes good letters, it doesn't follow that he ought to write a book. It also tells some truths which writers only half know until they read them. Thus I have always known the following to be true without quite knowing why: “The writer should be an insatiable reader—not because he may be educated or improved by what he reads, but because something he might read may suggest even by opposites a theme, a detail, a tone, natively his but hitherto lost in the profusions of his more conscious notions.” Young would-be writers shouldn't have trouble with this, but other items—I won't say they won't believe them but they might dislike them. Pay attention, says Horgan, to such humble mechanics of the craft as spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax. Spelling! Groans from the sophomore in Creative Writing already out-Faulknering Faulkner—Horgan is a nag.

No, Horgan is right. Writing is a craft like any other. Writers and carpenters had better have respect for the workaday tools of the trade, the feel of the wood under the thumb. Writing for a living is, for some reason or other, the only occupation to which people still ascribe a species of demonism. This state of affairs is probably the last legacy of 100 years of bad romanticism, the writer possessed, the writer post-epileptic. So that to the odd but recurring question, how do you go about writing, all sensible answers are necessarily unsatisfactory and are generally met with the same impatience and brushing aside. Says Horgan: one must serve a long apprenticeship with patience and humility and a willingness to learn. “I have never ceased being amazed at the almost unanimous expectation of students (graduate and undergraduate alike) who look to the publication and the success of the very first works they commit to paper.”

On the other hand, how can you generalize about a craft whose practitioners are as different as Flaubert, who might spend all day looking for the right word (holding his head in his hands), and Trollope, who wrote forty pages a day, each page containing exactly 250 words?

Walker Percy: "Writing is a craft like any other. Writers and carpenters had better have respect for the workaday tools of the trade, the feel of the wood under the thumb."

Most writers, especially fiction writers, have their little eccentricities, lining up pencil and paper a certain way, but these are less apt to be signs of madness than a very human anxiety to preserve what Horgan calls “an induced and protracted absentmindedness.” Evelyn Waugh once reported that he thought Graham Greene a little strange because he had to run out in the street and wait for a car to pass with a certain combination of numbers on the license plate before he could get to work. But Waugh of all people should have had sympathy for the quailings, twitches and fits which are apt to befall a man trying to write a good sentence.

Besides his shoptalk on writing—and no writer around has more honorable credentials—Horgan does something else in this book, a form of composition rather out of style these days, mainly because few writers are up to it. He writes aphorisms. Which is like playing the violin: there is no such thing as a pretty good aphorism. Horgan's are not written as such, being cullings from his notebook written for his own use. But we are glad to have them. And they are often memorable: “Sometimes we have the sense that even the best current American fiction is not quite adult in its perceptions and styles. Why do so many of our accepted novelists write like truculent adolescents? Can our national boyhood have lasted this long?”

Perhaps most valuable and pleasing, and funny, is Horgan's account of his own literary apprenticeship, the writing of five unpublished novels, the tracing out of what he was trying to do in each and how he went wrong. Bad writing is instructive in its own way. A fine writer's thoughtful analysis of his own trials and errors is valuable indeed.

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